Syria's Grassroots Movements Discussed at Edinburgh International Book Festival

18 August 2016



 While Western liberals fret about becoming embroiled in regime change, a historic people’s movement to hold a country together is going unsupported, and a brutal dictator tacitly backed. So argued Leila Al Shami and Robin Yassin-Kassab, appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to promote their book Burning Country, about Syria’s grassroots opposition to the Assad regime.

“You have people practising democracy at local level,” said Al Shami, “and that’s something we’re not hearing about.” Communities attacked and starved of amenities by the Assad government have, she said, organised their own representative structures, and ensured continued access to water, electricity and food, as well as setting up newspapers and radio stations. Such action represents the Syrian people’s tenacious commitment to democracy – but it will be quashed unless it is actively supported. “And if this vibrant civil society is wiped out, then what we’re going to be left with is extremism of all kinds.”

The Assad regime, said Yassin-Kassab, “wanted a war” when it clamped down violently upon the 2011 Syrian uprising. “It knew it couldn’t win against a peaceful protest movement, and it felt sure it had international friends who could help it, as has proved to be the case. They turned it into a war situation, kept everybody terrified and got rid of the threat.” This has permitted Al-Qaeda and their affiliates to become “vindicated and relevant again”. Violence was deliberately fomented, Yassin-Kassab said, by the strategic release from prison of 1500 extremist militia fighters. The resulting blurring of lines between anti-government elements and jihadists has, Yassin-Kassab argued, has resulted in the West being “scared into sticking with Assad – and that’s been an absolute disaster.” 94% of the civilian casualties in Syria have, he emphasised, been at the hands of the Assad regime.

A tangled situation is hardly helped, Yassin-Kassab noted, by being “very badly covered” in the West. Some of the most prominent voices reporting and commentating on the conflict have, in his view, served as mouthpieces for the Assad regime. “People I used to admire – Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk – have been shocking and appalling. They have obviously relayed propaganda stories – it’s been fraudulent.” He had similar scorn for Western leftists like Noam Chomsky: “so-called revolutionaries who scorn this revolution without knowing about it. They’re stuck in these silly binaries: ‘It’s all a CIA plot, it’s all a Mossad plot’. They assume it’s all about states, and ignore the people on the ground.”

Despite the current chaos, however, both speakers agreed that Syria can never be the same, and that the revolution against dictatorship can still be considered a successful one in terms of permanently dismantling state structures. “I don’t think they expected the scale of challenge they were going to get. I don’t think they’re going to get Syria back, even with Russia’s imperialist carpet-bombing.” Still, with negotiations currently “all still theatre”, Yassin Kassab predicts that “this is going to go on for a very long time.”

“The Syrian people have completely changed,” said Al Shami. “A generation has grown up on revolution. That’s not going to go anywhere. But at the same time this is a generation traumatised by war.”

What can be done from afar, the audience wished to know? Support the networks sustaining community life on the ground, said Al Shami. “People in Syria are in desperate need of more solidarity.” And at state level, said Yassin-Kassab, “Britain could use its influence to stop Russia committing war crimes, which is in turn expanding the refugee crisis. I wish the West would stop appeasing Russia and Iran.” Most urgently, “the civilians in Syria need to stop being bombed by everybody.”


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